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  1. by Dan Comer for The Ringer Yes, Atlanta is running the football like almost no other team in football. But that may not be to the team’s detriment. Since joining the Falcons last season, head coach Arthur Smith has become known as much for his schematic acumen as he has for his gruff exchanges with the media. In a July radio interview with 92.9 The Game in Atlanta, Smith said he “didn’t give a crap” what outside prognosticators thought about his team, and loosely compared the rebuilding Falcons—expected to field one of the league’s worst rosters after trading franchise cornerstone Matt Ryan—to Apple in the lead-up to its original iPhone release: “There were some of the smartest people in the tech industry who said the iPhone is never going to work,” Smith said. “It’s nonsense—if you’re buying this stuff, shame on you. There’s a graveyard of hot takes and these predictions that are just comical.” Smith reiterated his faith in the Falcons after they blew a 16-point fourth-quarter lead in a Week 1 loss to the Saints, responding to a rather innocuous question with Nick Saban-esque brashness before storming out of the press conference. “Write whatever y’all want,” Smith said. “You guys ranked us 45th, buried us in May. Bury us again, we don’t care.” Smith’s stubborn attitude with the press has extended to the gridiron. While the Falcons got off to a surprisingly strong 3-3 start this year, they faltered during last Sunday’s 35-17 loss to the Bengals, in which Atlanta inexplicably passed just 13 times—the second-fewest attempts in a game this season—despite trailing by at least two scores for more than 81 percent of the contest. Even when the Falcons trailed by 18 in the fourth quarter, an aerial attack still wasn’t the answer, as Mariota threw just three times compared to the offense’s five rushes. On the year, Atlanta is tied for first in early-down rush rate (64 percent), and they’re passing just 37 percent of the time in the second halves of games—the lowest rate of any team over the past 10 years. These numbers are shocking, especially when considering Atlanta enters the third quarter down by an average of four points per game. It doesn’t take a machine-learning model to realize that Smith could call more pass plays, and it’s easy to pile on the coach for a gameplan that seemed designed to take football back to the leatherhead era. But Smith is no dummy, and it’s worth examining why he favors the run so heavily—even when trailing by three scores late in the game. To his credit, Smith’s team is playing above its talent level for a second consecutive season after the coach led Atlanta to a better-than-expected 7-10 record in 2021. The offense has been particularly impressive, given the loss of franchise cornerstone Matt Ryan, and currently ranks ninth in DVOA after finishing 28th in the same category last year. Kyle Pitts and Drake London fantasy football managers may hate to hear it, but Smith’s reliance on a high-volume run game is the product of production, not dogma. Through seven weeks, the Falcons’ points per drive (2.1), as well as their rushing (.04) and passing (.06) expected points added per play, rank among the NFL’s top 10, and their explosive play rate (11 percent) grades out right around league average. Atlanta’s also become much more efficient in the red zone under journeyman starting quarterback Marcus Mariota: a limited passer, but a player whose mobility gives the Falcons an added dimension near the goal line that they haven’t had since Michael Vick left town. Sure, the scoreboard eventually looked crooked on Sunday against Cincinnati, but Smith’s continued commitment to running mirrored successful strategies he employed earlier in the season in comeback efforts against the Rams and Buccaneers. Though the Falcons eventually fell 31-27 in Week 2 against the defending champion Rams, Atlanta nearly exorcized some demons by storming back from a 28-3 deficit while passing just two more times than they rushed in the second half. A similar script unfolded against the Buccaneers in Week 5, when the Falcons trailed 21-0 heading into the fourth quarter but scored 15 unanswered points—and were a botched roughing the passer penalty away from attempting a potential game-winning drive—despite rushing five more times than they passed in that final frame. Atlanta lost both games, but the process offers a proof of concept for the stubborn Smith and his offensive staff. Down big late in the second half? Here’s the gameplan: Hope for a turnover that turns into an easy score, force some three-and-outs while the opponent tries to burn the clock, and voilà—you’re a couple skillfully schemed chunk plays away from winning the game. The margins may seem a bit too thin for comfort, but Smith is simply playing to his quarterback’s strengths (or lack thereof) and hoping to avoid his defense entirely. On the surface, Mariota has played well this season. He currently ranks among the league’s top 10 signal callers in passing and rushing EPA and rushing yards, and is extending drives with his feet in ways Falcons fans rarely saw from Ryan during his 14 years with the franchise. That said, the former no. 2 pick’s right arm has left a lot to be desired, as his inaccurate pass rate ranks 34th out of 35 qualified quarterbacks in the NFL, ahead of only Justin Fields. Mariota started the year strong, but Smith seems to have lost faith in his starting quarterback sometime over the past three weeks, as Atlanta has averaged just 17 passes per game during that stretch and is now on pace for the second-fewest pass attempts per game by a team since 1990. This isn’t strictly a vote of no confidence in Mariota, though, as the Falcons’ winning formula under Smith has always been rooted in commitment to a wide-zone run game that he’s been tweaking since his time as the Titans offensive coordinator. After Ryan’s departure, Smith and the Falcons’ offensive brass wisely crafted an even more rush-heavy offense tailored to Mariota—which includes plenty of rollouts, smoke-and-mirror run concepts out of the pistol formation, and a league-high play-action rate—that has kept their bottom-five roster competitive each week. The offense’s precipitous dropoff in early-down pass rate from 2021 to 2022 is the clearest evidence of the Falcons’ new blueprint in the post-Ryan era. And, on the whole, the plan is working. Though they’ve lost their best playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson to injury, and Pitts and London have become afterthoughts in the offense, three of the team’s four losses have come by a combined 11 points, and they sit atop a vulnerable NFC South at 3-4. Atlanta’s coaching staff is also hamstrung by a defense that boasts just two former first-round picks as starters, which is tied for the fewest in football. For reference, one of those two starters is 2021 second-team All-Pro corner A.J. Terrell, who missed most of the Cincinnati game with a hamstring injury and could be out for the next few weeks. The other is Rashaan Evans, a 2018 first-rounder on his second team who grades out as PFF’s 92nd-best linebacker in football this season. Against the Bengals on Sunday, the defense allowed 459 passing yards—the second-most by a team all season. Heading into their Week 8 matchup with the Panthers, Atlanta’s defense ranks bottom five in yards per play allowed, pressure rate, and opponent points per drive. The NFL’s best teams can win multiple ways, often relying on late-game quarterback heroics or timely sacks and interceptions from big-play defenses. Atlanta can win in basically only one: by controlling the football and limiting what they ask their quarterback and defense to do. That their coach understands this makes him clever, not foolish. After last Sunday’s loss to the Bengals, Smith regurgitated familiar talking points in the postgame press conference, telling reporters that Pitts is targeted “plenty,” while suggesting that the game plan was fine and that the offense just didn’t do enough to sustain drives. He may not be entirely correct there—a few more passes couldn’t have hurt the Falcons more than they were already hurting last Sunday, but Atlanta doesn’t have a crisis of poor effort or bad coaching. In fact, the Falcons typically win because of Smith’s tactical decisions, not in spite of them. Outside of Mike Vrabel and Mike Tomlin, there’s not a coach in football that’s achieved more with less talent than Smith has over the past two seasons since inheriting a fundamentally flawed roster and one of the league’s worst cap situations. The broader takeaway from Atlanta’s first seven games has nothing to do with combative press conferences or Smith’s reluctance to put the ball in the air. Rather, it’s about the team’s surprising success in light of the circumstances. During a candid offseason conversation with Jeff Schultz of The Athletic, Smith lauded the Steelers organization and rebuked tanking, calling it “the dumbest thing.” “I want to win,” Smith said. “I have an urgency to win. You’re never promised anything. You don’t know what’s going to happen a year from now.” The NFC South is up for grabs, and if Smith continues to keep the Falcons competitive in games they have no business winning, his team may string together enough victories to host a playoff game come January. Atlanta’s odds may seem long—FiveThirtyEight gives the Falcons just a 39 percent chance of making the playoffs—but they also have one of the NFL’s easiest remaining schedules and play in the weakest division since Washington won the NFC East with a 7-9 record in 2020. “Terry [Fontenot] and I have a shared vision how to build this thing in the long term and also compete in the short term,” he said in that same Athletic interview. “You can’t keep selling hope all the time. You have to have that buy-in.” Fans may be dubious of the franchise’s vision, but there’s something to Smith’s win-at-all-cost mentality. A strong culture without talent may not win Super Bowls, but neither does talent without a strong culture—which is arguably more difficult to develop. Next offseason the Falcons will enter free agency with the financial flexibility to plug major roster holes after years of being in cap purgatory. Their defense should improve immediately, and they’ll likely be one step closer to finding the quarterback of the future—whether that’s through the draft, the trade market, or an in-house option like Desmond Ridder. Atlanta could be one season away from serious contention, or six. Either way, it seems like this team is going to surprise some people, just like the iPhone did when it changed the world in 2007. https://www.theringer.com/nfl/2022/10/28/23427789/atlanta-falcons-run-heavy-offense-arthur-smith
  2. Paying a QB $30 Million Is No Longer a Risky Bet—It’s a Bargain Matt Ryan’s contract extension last year set a new milestone for QB salaries. The Falcons were delighted with the deal at the time. They’re even happier after seeing that threshold surpassed so many times since. Is the NFL in a QB salary bubble? As the most important position in sports becomes more expensive, teams have to decide when it makes sense to pay their quarterback big money, and when it’s time to move on. On Wednesday, The Ringer examines the decisions a team faces as its rookie quarterback approaches free agency, how a $30 million QB has become a bargain, and what the next big-money deal might look like. In the spring of 2018, the Atlanta Falcons signed Matt Ryan to a long-term extension which made him the first NFL player to average $30 million per season. It was a milestone salary for a quarterback—the top end of the market had been set at around $25 million for much of the decade. (Ryan was also the first to receive $100 million in guaranteed money.) Once the $30 million threshold had been crossed, it started to be crossed a lot. Ryan’s deal has since been surpassed by deals for Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, and Ben Roethlisberger, with more likely to follow, including Dak Prescott. Ryan’s deal established the cost of doing business with productive veteran quarterbacks. In a conversation with Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, I mentioned that because quarterback pay is always rising, any good quarterback under contract becomes a bargain so quickly that in a few years … ah, wait. “How many years did you say?” Dimitroff said with a slight chuckle. “Well, maybe now,” I said. “You may be looking at it right now, honestly,” Dimitroff said. I’ve written plenty about what teams can do if they have a cheap quarterback. I’ve talked to the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs this month, specifically, about their timetables to build around Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes, respectively, while they’re on their rookie contracts. It’s sort of a sandcastle: nice but temporary. A good, cheap quarterback becomes expensive overnight, and so those plans have an expiration date. Dimitroff has an interesting perspective on how to negotiate with a quarterback: He’s paid Ryan three times, including a first-round rookie deal (back when those were far more expensive), plus two lucrative extensions. Only Pittsburgh’s front office, with Roethlisberger, has been intact long enough to go through each of those negotiations with one quarterback. This experience leads Dimitroff to bring up a semi-popular thought experiment that arises in the football world every few months: What if a team never signed a quarterback to an extension and simply kept finding cheap quarterbacks forever? “I was literally moved to say ‘That’s asinine,’” Dimitroff said of the first time he heard of it. “I understand the idea. But when you’re sitting on this side of the desk, and you think about the precariousness of churning a quarterback out like that, going through a few years, and saying, ‘OK, go, time to find the next one.’ You want to talk about unnerving and unsettling and staying up all night? That’s what a lot of people do who don’t have a quarterback in this league.” Dimitroff has a quarterback, one he drafted with the third overall pick in 2008, and he makes it clear that he enjoys having him. The Falcons had a disappointing season last year, partly due to injuries, and partly due to an offensive line that Dimitroff addressed in this year’s draft. But it was through no fault of Ryan’s: The Falcons ranked fifth in the NFL in yards per play with 6.2, and scored on 43 percent of their drives, fourth best in the league. With the 34-year-old Ryan under contract through 2023, Dimitroff is locking into place the pieces around him. The team re-signed linebacker Deion Jones to a four-year extension worth $57 million, and inked defensive lineman Grady Jarrett to a four-year, $68 million deal. The Falcons are also discussing an extension with receiver Julio Jones just one year after renegotiating his contract. “Yes, of course, you need the proper backups and rounded talent, but I truly believe you win with pillar players,” Dimitroff said. “If you are not taking care of your pillar players, there’s a degradation of your organization, not only on the field, but off the field. So I, humbly, believe we’ve picked our players well, and they are legitimate leaders for us. We’ll look at those players who are our pillar players, and will be dedicated, financially, to taking care of them.” Investing heavily in “pillar players” is made easier by the rising salary cap, which has gone up about $10 million each year, with a total rise of $65 million, since 2013. Ryan and Julio Jones combined for nearly 25 percent of the Falcons’ cap in 2016, a season in which they were just a quarter-and-a-half away from winning the Super Bowl. That would have been by far the highest percentage for the two highest-paid players on a title team since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. Most successful teams resemble the Eagles, whose top salary on their Super Bowl–winning team in 2017 accounted for 6 percent of their cap. Luckily for the Falcons, it’s become easier to build a team around a rich quarterback: Ryan accounts for just 8.3 percent of the cap this year. He’s making $44 million in salary this season, the most in his career, but his long-term deal allows the Falcons to lower his cap number to a reasonable $15.8 million. “There has never been one person in this organization—at least to me—I’ve never heard moaning about the payment of Matt Ryan and how it affects not paying other people. Everyone realizes the benefits of having an upper-echelon quarterback,” he said. “There were people out there who said ‘Oh, you can get him for 29-and-a-quarter.’ And I just simply said ‘What are we doing here?’” Dimitroff said. “He’s going to be the top-paid quarterback, and before you know it, he’s not going to be the top-paid quarterback because that’s the way it goes.” That last part is quite important. I wrote earlier this year about the phenomenon of overpaying bad quarterbacks. It’s easy to think about there being two groups: cheap quarterbacks and expensive ones. Notably, a third group has developed: quarterbacks with mega extensions whose deals became cheap as time elapsed. Before his retirement, Andrew Luck, who signed a record-setting deal in 2016, had an average annual salary of $24.6 million—far behind every major quarterback who signed after him, including Wilson ($35 million), Roethlisberger ($34 million), and Rodgers ($33.5 million). Ryan has made $179 million in his career. By the time his contract is due to expire in 2023, he’ll have eclipsed $300 million—it will not have been an overpay. Dimitroff loves athleticism. He believes, along with Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, that “if you’re 10 pounds lighter than most players, but you have a badass persona, you can thrive in this league,” which is true for athletic defenders like Deion Jones. When Dimitroff got the job in 2008, and was facing his first big decision, he wondered whether he should value that in a quarterback, too. “I thought ‘Do I build a quarterback on what I really love? Athleticism?’” he said. Then he thought back to his days in the personnel department in New England. “I grew up in this league being around Tom Brady. How could you want anything different?” That, he said, is why he decided to commit to Ryan, the prototypical passer. He mentions having respect for Bill Polian’s team-building model with the Colts, which basically comprised of getting a franchise player, Peyton Manning, and building everything around him. (Dimitroff jokes that he knows this is heretical coming from a former Patriots employee.) After watching DeSean Jackson destroy the Falcons early in Ryan’s career, Dimitroff told me he realized he needed to find a similar offensive weapon for his quarterback. In 2011, he traded a haul of draft picks to acquire Julio Jones, and is committed to keeping the All-Pro receiver. Jones is the NFL’s all-time leader in career receiving yards per game with 96.7, and will be paid like it soon. “You go as your quarterback goes. I’ve seen the ups and downs of franchises who banked on a quarterback and it not working. I’ve seen the deleterious effects across the organization—not just the offensive side, but the defensive side, the morale of the organization,” he said. “It is so important to build through your quarterback.” The Falcons are doing that, and at $30 million, they think it is a bargain. https://www.theringer.com/nfl/2019/8/28/20833473/falcons-matt-ryan-thomas-dimitroff-julio-jones
  3. https://www.theringer.com/nfl/2018/7/3/17529820/superstar-pass-rushers-danielle-hunter-joey-bosa-jadeveon-clowney Meet the NFL’s New Generation of Superstar Pass Rushers
  4. In Atlanta’s backfield there are no labels. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman can both do whatever their offensive coordinator wants. 15 hrs ago Soon-to-be-MVP Matt Ryan and first-team All-Pro Julio Jones are the two superstar faces of the Atlanta offense’s incredible season, but the team’s two tailbacks are among the league’s best supporting actors. With Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta’s running backs room boasts two of the most electric rushers and pass catchers in the NFL. During the regular season, they combined for 2,482 yards and 24 touchdowns on land and through the air. While Freeman is the nominal starter, it would be unfair to call Coleman a backup. And referring to Atlanta’s setup as “running back by committee” implies that neither player is good enough to be the heavy lifter. Instead, this group defies most traditional labels, and they’re one of the most versatile and dynamic backfield duos in NFL history. Whether it’s running between the tackles, picking up a blitz, or taking a pass out of the backfield, both Freeman and Coleman are equally adept at doing it all. With both backs capable of playing the role of the sustaining bruiser or the fleet-footed space back in the passing game, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan rarely had to worry about tipping plays with formations or personnel. In an era in which “11” personnel (three receivers, a tight end, and a running back) is the prevailing base offense across the league, Atlanta relied on that set less often than every other team. Instead, Shanahan preferred to go with multiple-tight-end and multiple-running-back sets. Those heavier sets allowed the Falcons to run the ball with a little more power, and it worked like a charm: Atlanta finished the year fifth in rushing yards (1,928), tied for third in touchdowns (20), and fourth in yards per carry (4.6). Freeman led the way with 1,079 yards and 11 scores, but Coleman chipped in with 520 yards and eight touchdowns. The Falcons weren’t just running for the sake of running, though. By selling that potent ground game with both Freeman and Coleman, the Falcons were creating the opportunity for Ryan to take shots downfield in the play-action bootleg game. Forty-four percent of the Falcons’ pass plays came on two-plus-tight-end or two-plus-running-back sets, per ESPN’s Mike Clay, and as teams creep farther up into the box, it means there are fewer deep defenders. With Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Taylor Gabriel running deep, Ryan picked apart vulnerable secondaries all year. https://mobile.twitter.com/NFLFilms/status/819975966193754113?ref_src=twsrc^tfw No other team used play-action more than the Falcons (27.6 percent of their offensive snaps), and Ryan finished the year with a league-high 1,650 yards and 11.3 yards per attempt on play-action passes, connecting for nine touchdowns. The interchangeability of Freeman and Coleman make them ideal representatives of the post-position NFL, where actual designations like running back or receiver are losing more meaning by the day. Sure, both players are dangerous runners, but they both can catch passes out of the backfield or line up on the wing. As such, Shanahan could line the offense up in a traditional three-receiver, two-running-back formation, but he’d still have five receiving options. It puts the defense in a tough spot: To stop the run, you want more of your physical, tackling linebackers on the field, but against the pass, it’s better to have your speedy defensive backs out there. Whatever the opposing personnel prepares for, the Falcons can do the opposite, and Coleman and Freeman will take advantage. Shanahan consistently attacked these mismatches, as Freeman ended the year with 54 catches for 462 yards and two touchdowns, while Coleman added 31 receptions for 421 yards and three scores. It’s hard enough finding one running back who’s as dangerous taking a handoff as he is running a slant, and Atlanta has two of them. When Freeman and Coleman each finished the year with 30-plus receptions for 400-plus yards, in addition to 500-plus rushing yards, they joined a club occupied by just two other backfield tandems in the past 25 seasons. Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas accomplished it with the Saints in 2011, and Detroit’s Reggie Bush and Joique Bell did it in 2013. In both of those previous cases, though, the division of labor and difference in styles were stark: For New Orleans, Sproles was the space back out of the backfield, a jittery tackle breaker in the open field, while Thomas was more of a traditional sustaining back. For the Lions, the same could be said about their Thunder (Bell) and Lightning (Bush) arrangement. For Atlanta, Freeman and Coleman are both three-down backs. Solving Atlanta’s running back riddle now falls to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. There’s no better tactician than Belichick in the league, but he’ll have to come up with his own solutions. Looking at tape can only help so much when you’re playing an offense that no one’s been able to stop.
  5. This is a double post of two excellent articles that kind of go hand-in-hand talking about both sides of the same coin regading how defenses have changed at a lightning fast pace over just the last few years. As always, if you like the articles then please do give their websites a click and help out the people that provide good content like this. First, let's start with this very very good ESPN interview with Matt Ryan where he gives more than the typical stock answers he's known for. And it's also a fascinating subject matter -- how defenses have evolved, even in the last 5 years, to the point that the NFL is almost a different game from when Matt was a rookie in 2008. People that like to question Matt and/or Shanahan, this should shed some light on how little you and I actually know about what these guys really have to go through -- and how much more they know about what they are doing than we ever will. http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/17343238/how-atlanta-falcons-qb-matt-ryan-solves-today-nfl-defenses Falcons QB Matt Ryan breaks down what defensive chaos looks like from his side Aug 25, 2016 David Fleming ESPN Senior Writer This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's September 5 NFL Preview Issue. A DRENCHED AND exhausted Matt Ryan walks off the Falcons' steamy practice field and drops into his seat in the shade with an exaggerated groan. As if practicing in the Georgia heat weren't hard enough, the nine-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowl passer also had to contend with his own offensive coordinator in coverage. Kyle Shanahan nearly broke the internet when he jumped in front of a Ryan pass floating toward the end zone -- the ensuing "interception" was a preseason gift for the ever-ready army of trolls. (Relax, everyone, the coach was actually teaching his rookie tight end about route depth.) Ryan laughed off the viral spiral. In 2015, even while struggling to grasp Shanahan's new scheme, he still ranked fifth in passing yards (4,591) and was the NFL's most accurate passer under pressure. Which is why we thought he'd be perfect to offer a tutorial on the current defensive evolution. THE MAG: Here's a number that jumps out: In 2012, there were seven QBs with an average release time under 2.5 seconds. 
In 2015, there were almost triple that, 20. Is that what defenses have done, forced nearly everyone on offense to move faster? RYAN: Pressure schemes are much different than they were nine years ago, no question about it. That pressure forces offenses to route-adjust and throw quicker and get the ball out of the QB's hands. For me, pressure is when they overload one part of your protection. If you're in five-man protection and you've got three guys blocking one way and two guys sliding the other and they figure out how to bring three guys to that short side? To me, that's pressure. That's the biggest thing that's changed. Nine years ago, if you had five-man protection and they brought five people, there wasn't enough design on defense for them to still get you. Now defenses are dropping out tackles and ends, bringing certain linebackers on certain sides, all this extra design to make the numbers not right from a quarterback's perspective. What you end up with is perceived pressure, which is just as bad. That part has been increasingly difficult and probably leads to why so many guys are getting the ball out quicker. In the past, it was all about third downs. Second downs, you never had to worry. Now you do. One of the areas that's changed is second-and-7 or second-and-long, where you're in a passing situation. Now you see a lot of specialty packages come out. It's much more prevalent. Early on in my career, we didn't even used to break down second-and-long. That's how much things have changed. What does that look like from the pocket? It looks like nothing, and that's the challenge. It's now become about reading the defensive front, the way they're lining people up. But it doesn't look like it has any kind of structure to it. You've got five guys just walking around. That's one of the things you see more and more of: nobody with their hand in the dirt. So now you come to the line of scrimmage and on top of everything else you have 
to first identify who the bigs [defensive tackles] are, who the ends are and who the linebackers are. That's tough to do. The idea of a classic matchup between a team's best edge rusher and your giant left tackle seems so antiquated. Then you realize that it was, like, five years ago. That's so different now. Defenses have changed in how they move those guys around so much to try to find your weakest spot and put their best guy there to expose that. When I was getting into the league, you knew exactly where Julius Peppers was gonna line up. But now, with guys like J.J. Watt -- he could be lined up outside, he could be on the left side, he could be on the right side, it doesn't make a difference. He's an equal-opportunity pass rusher -- he goes after everybody from anywhere. Watt is also part of this new trend of hybrid defensive players. That's probably the biggest change: hybrid guys. Look at our rookies: De'Vondre Campbell [fourth-round pick from Minnesota]. You never used to see a linebacker like this, 6-4 and 232 and runs a 4.58. He flies. Back in the day, you'd never have a tight end on a linebacker in third-down situations. It was always a safety walking up. But now with a guy like Keanu Neal [6-0, 211-pound rookie safety, first-round pick from Florida], these guys are interchangeable. You slide him outside and then they've got you thinking, "OK, now we need to pass-protect for a linebacker." You're looking for the 'backer and then, instead, he covers the tight end and they bring a safety off the edge. They got me on that just the other day in practice. Has it gotten to the point where defenses force you to study and prepare and think so much that you end up with paralysis at 
the line of scrimmage? That's why it's so important now to throw everything out from the previous week. Delete everything from your memory and focus on just that next scheme -- that's the biggest thing now about being a quarterback. Every week it's different schemes, different pressures, different hybrids to worry about, so it's control-alt-delete and on to the next defense and then control-alt-delete and on to the next one, for the entire season. If you start seeing ghosts from past games or past schemes, you're just back there thinking too much, like, "Is this this defense or that defense? Am I checking this play off this key or that key?" That's not what you want to happen. Besides the mental pressure applied by the defense, there's pressure on fundamentals to be as efficient as possible, right? The big thing in throwing now, you have to be able to throw from any platform because the timing of when things are open is really short and there's so many variables that affect your footwork. Your feet could be facing right, but things change or break down and now I need to throw left. My hips are facing this way, but, same thing, uh-oh, now I need to throw the other way. Footwork, flexibility, changing arm angles, all those things are very important now because you never really know how a pocket is going to shake out. If you were teaching a young QB to face this next generation of defenses, where would you start? See spots. That's my thing now. The older I've gotten, the more that's become my thing. Don't worry so much about where defenders should be or where they're supposed to be or all those kinds of things. Just see spots. And design most of your pass plays to be spot-read instead of coverage-based. Instead of getting loaded down thinking, "In this coverage, I'm going here; in that coverage, I'm going there." With so many hybrid players, so many variations of schemes and so much pressure up front and all the things that defenses can do, the way to combat all that is to see spots. Aaron Rodgers told me the game moves so fast now, all you really can read are flashes of space and color. Is that what you mean? Windows, yes. You start with a general idea of the coverage, but what's more important now is if you've got a post route that's going [to the deep middle], I need to be seeing this spot of the field, with 
this spacing, and if that window's not open within this certain timing, then you move on to that next spot and then to the next spot. You've got to feel it now more than ever. Do these snapshots open and close like a camera lens? And can you prolong them? Yes, so the key becomes doing things like having your head facing this way to fool the defense, but actually I'm looking at this lens over here, watching out of the corner of my eye to see if it opens, without showing the defense that's what I'm doing. Being able to move somebody to create that little bit of extra space needed to fit 
the ball in there, that's what's important for quarterbacks now. It's about kinesthetic awareness. Spatial awareness. The game moves so fast now, understanding space by reading body language is probably the most important thing. We're into neurology and subconscious processing. I mean, when QBs get together, do you guys lament the good old simple days, like five years ago? We are under constant barrage in the pocket now. Facing it requires a certain feel, a sixth sense. Because the minute you're looking at the edge rush and not downfield, you're toast. That's what separates quarterbacks now, the ability to process all that information in a millisecond, make a good decision based off that snapshot and then to physically be able to get the ball to where you want it to go. I just realized we haven't even gotten to all the physical challenges of playing QB yet. Exactly.
  6. Robert Mays (formerly of Grantland) penned this feature about Julio Jones for new website The Ringer. Click this link (because Mays is cool and deserves your clicks): https://theringer.com/julio-jones-atlanta-falcons-3fa47fb03461#.iolreef9r and read the article.
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